November 22, 2011

How Do You Know When You're Done?

Endings are difficult -- think of love affairs, departures, and deaths.  So where do you begin?  I ask this question not only to open a line of thinking about the ways to conclude a poem, but as a reminder that, at least in a work of art, an end is likely intimate with its beginning.  And this might be true of other things too.

A few years ago, yearning for a dog, my partner and I went to the animal shelter. There was a photograph on line.  Some rescue websites post beautiful photographs of silky furred puppies playing on orange pumpkins, but the photograph we viewed was of a skinny, medium-sized black dog, smiling, behind a chain link fence. She had her head tilted just so, a certain wistfulness that caused us to get in the car and have a look. She was about a year old, and she'd been found on the Townline Road, starving.  Her body revealed she had been recently lactating as well, but had no puppies. She did have a wonderful grin caused in part by a underbite, a permanent smile, a shining row of white teeth. We took her home despite the fact she could not for a minute focus on us, or be persuaded away from the rabbit cage, or coaxed into accompanying our lead on the leash. I thought of her a teen mother; bred too young, unable to be responsible. It's something we have made into a joke; we say we posted bail, got her out of jail, for turning tricks on the Townline Road. As soon as we got her home; she ran away.  It's probably the Border Collie in her; she is a mix of many things. A special blend. We named her Sky.

Sky ran away several times, and in fact is incapable of staying home or in the yard. Yesterday, as I was going out of the house with an armful of old newspapers and the end of her leash, I dropped everything. There wasn't even a heartbeat of hesitation; she flung herself down the road with wild abandon. I've tried to change that behavior, carried treats in my pocket, conducted training exercises, been consistent. But running is her nature; I can't change it. Someday, I'm sure, that will be her end.

And think of all those other beginnings and ends. My last love began with a lavendar note; it ended also with writing.  My job happened to me. I fell into it almost accidentally, on my way somewhere else. It was a case of being in the right time and right place, and I stayed for many years. The departure did not feature much deliberation; I was seized with a sudden urge to go, in order to pursue other opportunity.  Endings can happen in so many ways. My mother died after a long illness. A cousin I had died suddenly, in a car accident.

I've been considering endings quite a lot lately, after leaving my job, and bringing another large writing project to a close.  I've been doing a writing workshop every month for a year, and I wonder really, how do you know when you're done?  Once one is in a flow, there is a certain force that carries you along. Endings should be considered. How do you find the right way, the right time and place?  

Formal poetry have built-in conclusions. The sonnet has its question and response; the form itself lends the writer the place for a turn in the poem that becomes a conclusion. The conclusion might be an amplification or epiphany. The sestina form with its obsessive repeats of the end words, 6 line stanzas, 6 stanzas, ends in a 3 line final stanza that incorporates all the six end words used throughout the poem. The villanelle also leads the writer into the conclusion if one follows the form. Studying forms of poetry might help you understand how meter, rhyme, and line might come together. The formal poem is a like a ritual or ceremony.  One follows it; the experience has a certain shape and form.

Rituals and ceremonies are wise practice; the funeral will help us accept a death. A divorce proceeding will undo a wedding.  A break-up has its familiar characteristics.  Good-byes entail certain rituals, even in poems.  Change can happen suddenly; it can be too abrupt. A good ending is a good resolution; it satisfies.

Free verse or blank verse does not offer formulaic resolutions.  I've been considering the conclusion of free verse poems and decided to review some ways they end.  Some are actually good-bye poems, and some are not.  This one for example is published at

I May After Leaving You Walk Quickly or Even Run
  by Matthea Harvey

Rain fell in a post-romantic way.
Heads in the planets, toes tucked

under carpets, that’s how we got our bodies
through. The translator made the sign

for twenty horses backing away from
a lump of sugar. Yes, you.

When I said did you want me
I meant me in the general sense.

The drink we drank was cordial.
In a spoon, the ceiling fan whirled.

The Old World smoked in the fireplace.
Glum was the woman in the ostrich feather hat.
Harvey's poem is very focused; she begins with rain falling, and the word "post-romantic" immediately indicates the situation is a break up; and it could be the final drink she describes in that restaurant/bar.  There is a tearing sensation created by "heads in the carpets, toes tucked under carpets" and even more distance indicated by the detail about a translator and twenty horses backing away.

As the poem develops, the details exact to the room, very specific. "The drink we drank was cordial" has a very pleasing sound play.  The alliteration of d sounds, hard consonants, echo a relationship that is done. The meter is very pronounced: two iambs, one anapest. It rings of ending.  Image-wise, it is as if her consciousness was withdrawing from the expansive pre-romantic world and she was no longer having eye contact.  "In a spoon, the ceiling fan whirled."

Her last two lines are a great conclusion to the poem. The figurative image, "The Old World smoked in the fireplace," picks up a likely detail of the room she's in and uses it to mean the former world of the relationship has just turned to ashes and smoke.  And "Glum was the woman in the ostrich feather hat" would suggest the old children's song, "Out went the doctor, out went the nurse, out went the lady in the alligator purse."  But perhaps the detail might also reflect a painting found on the wall; the narrator now is no longer at the table, staring into the spoon, but even farther away. She has disappeared completely.

The conclusion is so completely congruent with the withdrawal of love; the narrator disappears before the end of the poem.  It's a clear good-bye poem.  The ending image is consistent with a conclusion that is a farewell. The image resonates like a bell that sounds after it's been struck.

Good poems begin in image and action, stay focused on that thing that came in when they begin, and find the sound to accompany you along the way.  This is a superb poem.

Strong endings are very important to a good poem, in my opinion.  There is another poem to consider. This one by Naomi Shihab Nye was published on Writer's Almanac at

The Art of Disappearing
   by Naomi Shihab Nye

When they say Don't I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

This is a wonderful poem in a pattern of "When," "If/then," and imperatives. In the last stanza, a slight shift in sentence structure away from when and if to three commands creates a satisfying conclusion. However, there is a "then."  This unifies it to the earlier stanzas.  There is that resonant quality here too, in fact an actual bell resounds.  The reader is left with a strong image of leaf and tumbling and the proviso to decide what to do with one's time.

The poem seems to result in a moment of silence, as if the reader must pause and take it in,  as if one is filling in one's own details, weighing the desire to say no to all the expectations and demands.  The sound of the language here also has a ring, the long i sound, as in chime. It resounds.  The sound of the line is very important, and decisions about when one is finished with a poem can be made when one is satisfied with the sound when one reads it aloud.     

There are many other ways to end poems, of course. In the poem by Allen Ginsberg, "The Lion for Real," the poem offers long ranging lines and a sequence of images in a story about a lion; the narrator of the poem explains his encounters, where and what it was like and what it did. In the end stanza, there is a shift. The narrator turns from explaining to the reader or others and addresses the lion directly. It is suddenly a prayer or entreaty to a god; and it's very powerful:
Lion that eats my mind now for a decade knowing only your hunger
Not the bliss of your satisfaction O roar of the Universe how am I chosen
In this life I have heard your promise I am ready to die I have served
Your starved and ancient Presence O Lord I wait in my room at your Mercy.

The entire poem can be read online at the Poetry Foundation website:

The story turns, like a sonnet might turn.  It ends in a capitulation or adoration; he has offered his complete being to the fear. The last line has even a sexual inference, "I wait in my room" which acknowledges that fear is paradoxical, we are drawn to it; the power of the lion is seductive and potentially transformative.  He surrenders completely.

Ginsberg's poems have an incantatory power. Howl ends with a last section of anaphoristic lines.  "I am with you..." begins each line and the narrator focuses on the images of the psychiatric ward but also larger America.  This poem is also at the Poetry Foundation website at is the end:
I’m with you in Rockland
   where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself    imaginary walls collapse    O skinny legions run outside    O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here    O victory forget your underwear we’re free
I’m with you in Rockland
   in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night

The sequence of "O" phrases develop into an emotional crescendo.  It moves beyond the ward, across America, in the Western night.   It's no surprise that Ginsberg returns with another poem, "Footnote to Howl" that returns to Howl to add a final incantatory, celebratory footnote that is a blessing.  He is grounded in the body, and singing it as holy.  It's a stronger final conclusion.  You can read the entire poem here:

The story I offered about our dog Sky is a story still unfolding. She came back today and was rewarded with treats. I'm not sure if she hasn't trained me more than I've trained her. We have -- each for the other-- expectations.

Free verse poems develop their own patterns.  The pattern is an expectation, and it must be considered and lead into a satisfying ending. The structure of the poem will offer a clue to the appropriate choice. The epiphany is perhaps a classic ending to a poem; the concept of "turn," referring to a shift that's made inside a sonnet, offers a useful guide. The direction of the poem shifts; the language shifts, it is perhaps how best one can read a situation to know if it is the end.

The examples that I've offered here suggest that good endings have resonant images, pleasing sounds in the language, movement, crescendos or blessings.  Finding the right ending will release the poem in the best way; it is perhaps a spiritual exchange, a transfer of image and sound that rises, travels, arrives from the writer's inhaled breath to the reader's last exhalation.

November 3, 2011

Submitting Your Work to Competitions

Whether fiction or poetry, it must be work that is original yet not merely sensational for the sake of sensation. It must contain clear, well-developed themes and be written in a style that exhibits love of language and mastery of craft.

If fiction, whether literary/mainstream or genre fiction, the characters must be fully drawn, not stereotypes, and must be engaged in conflicts (either internal or external) that are compelling and show forward momentum.

In both poetry and fiction, if it's a universal story (love, death, loss, coming of age, moral responsiveness or failure to respond), it must be told in a fresh way.

And poetry, whether formal or free-verse, must exhibit rhythm and "music" in its use of language, syntax, line breaks, and structure. A group of words carelessly slung lengthwise down a page is not a free-verse poem; it's a group of words that needs to be made into a poem.

Furthermore, a group of words that ‘plays’ with language without attempting meaning or message is not a poem, it’s an exercise.

This is an excerpt from and I've copied it here because I think it's the most succinct statement of what competitions and editors like to see.  

In addition, the work should be free of errors (spelling, commonly confused words, or the like) and the writer needs to read the directions carefully in order to follow the submission guidelines. In some, the author's name can not appear on the manuscript. Many of the competitions have reading fees around $25 or more; the writer should know that the prestigious awards have a lot of submissions, upward of a 1000 or more. The work needs to be a very high caliber.    
I used to send a lot of manuscripts out and pay many fees--I didn't mind supporting the many small presses that used these funds to help maintain their operation. But it began to feel like a form of gambling; I realized I had better ways to use my funds. I've become more selective.

There are arts boards that take applications; these are very worthwhile and they do not ask for a reading fee.  In Minnesota, the state arts board offers many opportunities.  Visit their website at There are regional arts councils as well, and I recommend that you go to any workshops that are offered for assistance in the application process. In northeastern Minnesota, see